Montana woman, Tanzanian husband team up for safari business

2014-07-20T00:00:00Z 2014-08-09T20:42:19Z Montana woman, Tanzanian husband team up for safari businessBy LINDA HALSTEAD-ACHARYA For The Gazette The Billings Gazette

It was by happenstance that Jamie Pearson and her husband, Dieter Zimmermann, discovered Tupo Africa Safaris. But it was a stroke of luck for the Billings family of four.

“We took our kids on an eight-month trip around the world,” Jamie said. “And our time with Beth and Deo was the highlight of the entire trip.”

The “Beth and Deo” are Beth Hamilton Kessy, a local physician assistant who grew up in Columbus, and her husband, Deo Kessy, a native Tanzanian safari guide. The couple runs Tupo Africa Safaris, a company with a Montana twist. Beth handles much of the booking and itineraries, often from Montana, while Deo guides their guests on safaris in Tanzania, the nation known for Mount Kilimanjaro — at 19,341 feet, Africa’s highest peak — and the famed Serengeti National Park.

The Zimmermanns had decided on a trip to Africa, and Jamie was scouring online sites for safari companies when she “discovered” Tupo Africa Safaris while driving in Billings. By chance, she was trailing Beth’s Honda, which sports the company’s distinctive logo — the continent of Africa and a native Maasai tribesman silhouetted against an African sunset — on its tire cover. Jamie immediately called the phone number listed, met with Beth at City Brew and began making plans.

“As is typical in Montana,” Jamie explained. “I’m from Absarokee and she (Beth) is from Columbus. And her dad and my dad were high-school classmates.”

The Montana ties provided the perfect fit for Jamie and Dieter. Not only did it make them feel more comfortable, but the personal connection seemed to offer a unique “in” for their visit to Tanzania.

“As experienced travelers, we knew how much that would positively impact our trip,” Jamie added. “And, Beth’s been there as a tourist and a resident, so she understands a traveler’s fears and needs. Their hometown becomes your hometown. It also helps that Deo is kind, patient and speaks perfect English.”

Tupo Africa Safaris (“tupo” in Swahili means “we are”) offers a variety of travel options, including photography safaris, birding adventures and climbing expeditions up Mount Kilimanjaro. Likewise, the Kessys can arrange for professional hunting safaris, gorilla viewing, beach time in Zanzibar and cultural experiences.

“You expect to see big critters, but there is so much more than that,” said Darrell Tunnicliff, another Billings resident who spent a month on safari with Tupo Africa Safaris. He was struck by the sounds of Africa and the welcoming nature of the people of Tanzania. “You will not get bored. Every day is a new experience.”

Tunnicliff had learned of the company through his sister, who has twice toured Tanzania with the Kessys.

“I would go again in a heartbeat,” he said. “It was the most tranquil, relaxing vacation I’ve ever had.”

Tunnicliff was especially impressed with the couple’s warmth and Deo’s knowledge of the wildlife.

“And Deo seems to know everybody,” he said. “You get off the plane and you feel like you’ve known him your whole life. And he just anticipates what makes it (the safari) pleasurable for you.”

Tupo Africa Safaris specializes in birding safaris — 458 avian species have been identified in Tanzania — and safaris geared for photographers.

“He (Deo) gets lots of compliments from photographers,” Beth explained. “He knows if you’re using a 300 millimeter lens where to position the vehicle and where to position it for lighting.”

And, because Deo is a native of the country, Tupo Africa Safaris offers a unique connection to its culture. Tour options include a visit to a Maasai village, a walk through a coffee plantation or a service project for a local orphanage. The company donates 10 percent of its profits to benefit the people of Tanzania.

“We did a World War II historical tour in Leshoto and an investors project in Dar es Salaam,” Jamie said. “Then we spent a few days on the beach in Zanzibar scuba diving.”

With such a variety of opportunities, the Kessys are happy to customize trips to meet their clients’ requests. Safaris can be as brief as one-day or as long as a month. Arrangements can be made for a single traveler to as many as 16. Likewise, the Kessys can book accommodations to fit just about any budget.

“We can offer midrange to luxury hotels to tent-camping safaris. And we supply all the equipment,” Beth said.

Among the many inquiries the Kessys receive, they are happy to answer the obvious question: How did a Montana girl and a Tanzanian guide happen to cross paths and marry?

Just as chance played into the Pearsons’ adventure, synchronicity played a key role in Tupo Africa Safaris.

Growing up in Columbus, Beth had no inkling she’d ever travel far, much less to Africa.

“My family were not travelers,” she said, smiling. “I always loved animals and reading about safaris but Africa seemed so far away.”

Meanwhile, Deo, the son of a military man, grew up on military bases across Tanzania. As his family moved from base to base, he was introduced to the country’s national parks. That experience, along with his father’s flair for photography, sparked in Deo an interest in both wildlife and photography. After earning a diploma from the College of Tourism and Wildlife Management in Arusha, a major city in Tanzania, he began freelancing as a safari guide.

Back in the United States, Beth earned a degree as a physician assistant from Idaho State University and began practicing in Billings in 2003.

Their lives crossed when a friend talked Beth into combining a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro with an international medical conference. The two also squeezed in some safaris, including a 3-day service project to develop a water source for a small village.

“So, I met Deo on safari,” Beth said, smiling. “He was one of the guides. We kept in touch and I had fallen in love with Africa.”

Beth returned to Tanzania several times, working on medical mission projects and visiting Deo. In the spring of 2009, he surprised her in Montana. The couple married in October 2010 — celebrating their reception at a lodge in the Serengeti — and had daughter Abigail in the summer of 2011. Her birth rounded out the family at four, including Deo’s son Craig.

Beth continues to divide her time between Montana and Africa — Tanzania does not recognize the title of physician assistant, she explained — but, she hopes soon to make the move more permanent.

As the Kessys consider expanding into other niche tour opportunities, Tupo Africa Safaris continues to grow. Deo has built up a fleet of five Land Rovers and together the couple has cultivated a network of devoted clientele, whose referrals and return visits account for roughly 60 percent of the business.

“We have a high percentage of repeat clients,” Beth explains, smiling, “because one time in Tanzania is never enough.”

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